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October 14, 2006

One of the more unfortunate and utterly predictable reactions to Pope Benedict XVI's speech at the University of Regensburg -- which called for dialogue between faiths -- was the violence, death threats, and demands for submission by Muslims worldwide. Moderate Muslims scolded the Pope for daring to criticize apparent inconsistencies in Islam, and even some Westerners who purport to uphold freedom of speech told the Pope he should have kept his mouth shut. The Muslim reaction resulted in at least one murder, a rather chilling response to a call for open and honest dialogue.

After a series of apologies and clarifications, some Muslim scholars have finally answered the Pope's call. Islamica Magazine has created a panel of dozens of Islamic scholars, and they have crafted a scholarly response to the Regensburg speech:

An open letter to the Pope from 38 top Muslim clerics in various countries accepts his expressions of regret for his controversial speech on Islam.

But the lengthy letter carried on the website of Islamica magazine also points out "errors" and "mistakes" in the Pope's speech.

The clerics' letter is due to be passed to the Vatican on Sunday.

Islamica Magazine stated in its press release that the letter intends on addressing "misconceptions" of Islam in the Western world:

The letter is being sent, in the spirit of goodwill, to address some of the controversial remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI during his lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany on Sept. 12, 2006. The letter tackles the main issues raised by the Pope in his discussion of a debate between the medieval Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an 'educated Persian' such as compulsion in religion, reason and faith, forced conversion, the understanding of 'Jihad' or 'Holy War,' and the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

The Muslim signatories accept the Pope's personal expression of sorrow and assurance that the controversial quote did not reflect his personal opinion. At the same time, the letter represents an attempt to engage with the Papacy on theological grounds in order to tackle wide ranging misconceptions about Islam in the Western world.

Islamica also has the letter available on its website, but in a graphical form only. They will publish the text on Sunday, the same time that the letter will be received by the Papal Nuncio. However, the tone of the letter seems very academic, absent the passions of the millions of protestors. The first argument they tackle is the Pope's comments about the use of violence for conversion:

You mention that "according to the experts" the verse which begins, There is no compulsion in religion (al-Baqarah 2:256) is from the early period when the Prophet "was still powerless and under threat," but this is incorrect. In fact this verse is acknowledged to belong to the period of Quranic revelation corresponding to the political and military ascendancy of the young Muslim community. There is no compulsion in religion was not a command for Muslims to remain steadfast in the face of the desire of their oppressors to force them to renounce their faith, but was a reminder to Muslims themselves, once they had power, that they could not force another's heart to believe.

I'd have to return to the Regensburg speech, but I think that was the point of Benedict's reference -- that Muslim leaders do not live by that standard. For that matter, one could then ask why non-Muslims had their economic and professional opportunities significantly proscribed by the Qur'an and Mohammed's edicts, which also imposed a tax (jizya) on non-Muslims. After all, there are many varieties of compulsion, and those appear to be simply more subtle compulsions to convert.

One finds many points to debate with the scholarly arguments presented in the Islamica letter, but that's the entire point. The letter provides that kind of Socratic debate which has been lacking since the Manuel dialogue, and that was the point Benedict made during his Regensburg speech. The collected Islamic scholars -- and they come from hotspots like Iran, Oman, Chechnya, and Egypt -- have chosen to demonstrate more confidence in their faith and its intellectual standing than the massive numbers of rioters that magically appear every time a criticism of Islam appears in the West, spurred on by imams that value totalitarian control over faith and reason.

I am not a mindless Utopian. Dialogue does not solve all problems. However, the refusal to engage in dialogue solves no problems at all and creates all kinds of new problems, as we saw with the Danish Prophet cartoons and the Regensburg speech itself. Perhaps the example of the signatories to the Islamica letter will prompt Muslims worldwide to consider the lack of faith their violent reaction exposes. At the very least, it's a start towards forcing Islam towards its own Enlightenment.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 14, 2006 9:15 AM

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